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CTE is a rebranding of what has been traditionally called vocational education or voc-ed, the practice of teaching career and workplace skills in an academic setting. While years ago, that may have included courses in woodworking, auto mechanics, or cosmetology, the new, improved version of CTE has greatly expanded course offerings to many more “high-demand” careers, especially in fields that require knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Education policy advocates across the political spectrum, from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to former First Lady Michelle Obama, have praised expansions of CTE programs in schools. Fast-tracking federal funds for CTE programs in schools has become the new bipartisan darling of education policy. CTE lobbyists and advocates have successfully pressed for expanded funding of their programs at federal and state levels. And a 2019 study by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., found that since 2004, mentions of CTE in U.S. media outlets “have grown over tenfold, and they have doubled since 2012.”
According to a September 2019 analysis from Brookings, “more than 7 million secondary school students and nearly 4 million postsecondary students were enrolled in CTE programming.” And a 2018 review of CTE programs by the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics found 73 percent of school districts offered CTE courses that give students both high school and postsecondary credit, a potential benefit for students and parents who want to reduce the cost of college.
What has folks in Chesterfield County, Virginia, concerned is the particular brand of CTE that has come to their district. At a September 2019 community event, middle school teacher Emma Clark and others mentioned the district’s collaboration with Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL), an offshoot of the Ford Motor Company that claims, according to its website, that it “mobilizes educators, employers, and community leaders to create a new generation of young people who will graduate from high school both college- and career-ready.”
Chesterfield parents I spoke with also pointed to the district’s collaboration with the Cisco Networking Academy, an offshoot of the computer networking giant that has its own branded course offering in the Chesterfield CTE curriculum.
In a phone conversation, Clark described the district’s collaborations with these companies as “new layers” of school privatization. First, corporations like these can use the rush to CTE to flood schools with new course offerings that require technology the schools have to buy. And another layer is the CTE programs businesses help to create provide them with free job training.
The concern Chesterfield teachers and parents have about corporate influence in K-12 public school curricula is magnified enormously due to the entrance of Amazon into the equation.
The “centerpiece” of Virginia’s successful effort to lure Amazon to build a new headquarters in the state, according to state-based news outlets and state-issued reports, was a commitment to more than double Virginia’s tech-talent pipeline, beginning in K-12 schools.
“Virginia’s ultimate proposal was centered around an effort to provide Amazon—or any other tech firm that wanted to come—with all the educated workers it needed,” according to a report in the Washingtonian, and the state sealed the deal with a pledge “to plow $1.1 billion into tech schooling.” The state’s commitment to developing a tech-talent pipeline providing workers for Amazon and other companies was key to inking the deal, says an Amazon spokesperson in the Cincinnati Business Courier.
“We’re being hijacked in Virginia,” Kathryn Flinn explained to me. Flinn is a 20-year resident of Chesterfield and mother of two children, one a special-needs child, who both have attended Chesterfield County Public Schools.